Innovation Grant Spotlight: Reduced versus traditional tillage

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Throughout the summer we have been highlighting projects from the 2017 Innovation Grant Program, with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) investing more than $250,000 in 23 farmer-led projects focused on conservation. Through Dec. 15, you can apply to the 2018 Innovation Grant Program here. MCGA will be distributing as much as $300,000 to farmers interested in testing an idea on their farm.

While many farmers are sticking to traditional tilling practices, scientific research conducted by university agronomists goes against the mentality that more and deeper mixing of the soil is better.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) is funding farmer-led research through the Innovation Grant Program, helping farmers test conservation-minded practices on their farm.  Growers Kent Luthi and Adam Bjerketvedt are leading a project that compares traditional tillage to reduced techniques.

Luthi and Bjerketvedt have always been told the more tillage, the better. With Innovation Grant funding, the brothers-in-law, who farm near Morris, are comparing yields on fields using 14-inch, 7-inch and no-till. On the no-till acres, the partners injected manure below the surface with a broad-wing knife, comparing yield on fields with limited tillage created by the injection to wider ripper points.

The Innovation Grant supports equipment and technical advice to help Luthi and Bjerketvedt monitor stand health, plant health and population through the growing season, assuring they make an apples-to-apples comparison when comparing yield.

“The question becomes is it really worth spending all this time and money with a longer knife and a bigger point, or are we getting the same benefit from the smaller, narrower point?” Bjerketvedt said.

The pair are working with tillage expert Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a regional educator with University of Minnesota Extension, and private consultant Dorian Gatchell, to assure their results will be scientifically accurate.

“Sometimes there are people out there who say you need the kind of equal mixing of everything that aggressive tillage provides, but we are learning more and more, and finding out this is not what works,” said DeJong-Hughes.

DeJong-Hughes said her research is not intended to prove any farmers wrong, but to promote the soil health benefits of a stable home with minimal soil disruption. While in theory some farmers may think a uniform soil composition is best, science has said the plant does not agree.

What do the crops actually want? Luthi and Berketvedt hope to demonstrate the relationship between tillage and yield, specific to west central Minnesota. They also know that this year’s research is small scale, and amounts to a single data point, so they hope to expand the research across a number of sites on their farm operation, to include different types of terrain and farming practices, including irrigated land.

MCGA Senior Research Director Paul Meints, who oversees the Innovation Grant Program, said the primary value of the program is taking the practices that have shown to work in university-funded research and rolling it out on a larger scale.

“We are seeing a concept applied on a landscape, on a larger component of a farming operation. It is next-level ‘proof of concept.’” Meints said. “We have small-scale proof that it works, and this is the next step of larger scale evidence.”

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